Fake News, Part 2: Fragmented Identities, Echo Chambers and Confirmation Bias

Welcome to Words on Current Matters, the blog of our MD, Dr Darryl Nelson. These posts cover Darryl’s thoughts and opinions on various key issues, events or trends impacting people’s lives, our political directions and social landscapes. In particular, Words on Current Matters regularly considers the effects of behavioural traits and narrative framing examples, which help shape both our understanding of the world and our lived realities within in it.



Last week, I looked at how the growing issue of fake news has been driven by contested truths and fragmenting realities, as one aspect of major social changes that have emerged ostensibly since the end of the Second World War. Clearly, there is nothing new nor isolated about fake news, but what is perhaps less clear is that nor is it easily ‘avoided’. All of us are prone to accepting falsehoods at least some of the time, whether we do so consciously or unknowingly.

A second aspect of recent social upheavals, not surprisingly aligned to the fracturing of truths, is how multiple narratives have naturally given rise to multiple identities (or, in some cases, have given voice to existing disparate identities). And not just varied identities between individuals and groups, but within them too – for some people, a ‘multi-faceted’ sense of identity is the very essence of who they are, or of how they live their life, while examples of group-fragmentation include the hitherto Gay and Lesbian movement, now more inclusively known as LGBTIQA+.

While the fragmentation and proliferation of varied identities has been positive, with many more types of people now feeling not only represented but empowered, there is also clearly a downside (why is there always a downside?). A sense of personal identity, based as it is on so many factors – personal stature and experiences, family, culture etc – has never been something fixed nor finished. Throughout our lives we all continue to grow, learn and develop to some extent, and ‘identity’ is always a work in progress, something we have to continuously work at to hold on to a sense of self.

When truths were limited and notions of shared truth were more stable, so too were notions of self. Now, holding on to an identity requires a lot more work, a lot more diligence and a lot more ongoing confirmation. Which brings us to the behavioural trait of confirmation bias.

First identified as a cognitive bias in the 1960s, confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to seek out or simply to notice things which align more closely to what we already think. Dan Ariely, a leading voice in Behavioural Economics, has described it as the propensity to seek ‘correlational evidence’. For Daniel Kahneman, arguably the leading voice in BE, confirmation bias is a function of our lazy, System 1 thinking, which is always looking for the easiest cognitive path. As such, people are prone to seek inputs which “are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold”.

I would argue that confirmation bias is a lot more seductive and a lot more integral to our cognitive processes, than simply being part of an easy way to think. To understand just how powerful this cognitive bias is, we need only consider its obverse: what would our sense of self be like if we always sought out inputs which challenged who we thought we were? Or if we were prone to notice only those things which make us doubt ourselves and our choices, or which ‘show’ us how are lives are failing, or inconsequential, or socially repugnant? As a default way of thinking, that sort of process would represent a very slippery slope indeed, quickly leading most of us into a downward spiral of depression or worse.

Confirmation bias is not just a propensity to take the easy thinking path – it comforts us, reassures us, confirms us. Through constant and continuing instances of affirmation, we know who we are, what’s important to us and why we matter. For these reasons, confirmation bias is also very powerful because it necessitates being shared: as social animals, our strongest factors of confirmation come from family, from culture, from belonging to something. As such, our confirmation biases are strongest and most comforting when they are shared, not only within our group or community, but across time, from generation to generation.

In social research, we see the drive and importance of confirmation bias all the time. In qualitative fieldwork, we see people ‘explaining’ their lives, their choices, in ways that make it palatable and ‘sensible’ to them. In particular, we see this even when different people are talking about quite different realities regarding the same issue.


Fragmented identities and echo chambers

So why has fake news become such a big issue? Why now is it such a clear and present danger? Two words: social media. Social media channels have elevated and accelerated two key developments: the proliferation of voices in the public domain and the opportunities for disparate identities to connect, share and confirm each other. Again, this is not all bad. Previously marginalised people, living isolated realities because they didn’t fit the mainstream, have now been empowered like never before. But so too have the cranks and the crackpots.

If we accept that confirmation bias is a strong behavioural trait that has always existed in our cognition, the biggest change across our social landscapes has been the shift into multiple, fragmented identities. In previous generations, the factors of confirmation bias were so much more homogenous and stable (at least within cultural groups etc), not least of all because our channels for sharing and experiencing those factors were also highly homogenous and stable (e.g. mass media).

Now, in the echo chambers of social media, almost any identity can be formed and, more importantly, shared and confirmed. This is the second major barrier facing any attempts we might make to deal with fake news. Unfortunately, within these hyper-fragmented realities, it doesn’t matter whether the news is fake or not – it’s “our” news, and we embrace it.